How the great halva boycott backfired

November 24, 2016 23:22

Rarely have desserts been so controversial. The content of one of Brussels Airlines's vegetarian meals unexpectedly became the focus of international lobbying and top-level diplomacy last week.

It all started when a pro-Palestinian activist boarded a plane from Tel Aviv to Brussels and found that the meal contained a bar of vanilla halva. The bar was 100g in size, yet it was not the prospect of around 500 calories and several teaspoons of sugar that troubled the passenger, but rather the fact that it had been produced in a West Bank settlement.

Suddenly, one person's in-flight dissatisfaction mushroomed into a boycott controversy. Palestinian activists were quickly pressuring Brussels Airlines to banish halva made by the Achva company, and the airline dutifully complied.

If Israeli reports were correct, the Belgian firm naively said it had been informed the halva was a "controversial product."

When the airline pulled the halva, it was initially unclear exactly what had happened. The company told the JC there had been a supply issue, but informed other media it had been aiming to provide menus that were "amicable to all". Halva is an acquired taste for Westerners and airlines like to provide food with a wide appeal. Was it possible Brussels had never ordered the halva and had included it in its on-board menu by mistake?

That was one line of enquiry, but the airline later reportedly called its West Bank manufacturer one of its "trustful suppliers".

Whatever was behind the initial decision to pull the halva, nobody at the country's leading airline had the foresight to see that if it was coming under pressure from one side of an argument, there was another group that was not going to be best pleased.

Boycott attempts occur all the time, but when they are of a culinary nature Jerusalem seems to spring into action especially fast. Last year, there was Merlot-gate. When a German department store took a few bottles of wine from the Golan Heights off the shelves to re-label them and brand it a settlement drink, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dealt with the matter himself.

This time, as angry Israelis and diaspora Jews posted fuming messages on the airline's Facebook page and threatened never to buy its tickets again, it was Mr Netanyahu's close confidant, Dore Gold, director-general of the Foreign Ministry, who took up the cause.

Mr Gold called up Brussels Airlines and explained that Achva provides employment for Palestinians and actually brings Israelis and Palestinians together in the factory. At that point, the airline made a U-turn. The firm reportedly wrote to Israel's ambassador in Brussels stating that it would "continue to accept Achva's products on board our flights, especially given its positive role in the community".

The unfolding of the great halva controversy underscores just how forceful and convincing boycotters can be when they target company executives, and how they can make it seem like common sense to simply steer clear of "controversial" products. It also illustrates that sometimes the boycotters' successes can be short-lived, or can even backfire.

Passengers may have never even noticed the Achva halva on-board, but by putting it at the centre of an international controversy and on the agenda of politicians and Jewish activists, boycotters have ensured it will feature in future menus. Some would say the boycotters got their just desserts.

November 24, 2016 23:22

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